VSE Freshman Flips for Playboating
November 20, 2013
With an air of calm and grace, Jordan Poffenberger pushes himself and his playboat out of the water with his oar, turning himself upside-down and spinning until he somehow lands upright amid the rushing whitewater. It happens quickly — just seconds in the air, a fishlike jump and then back on the water with the boat bucking against the eddy's current.
Poffenberger is calm on land too. He recalls his first semester as a freshman civil and infrastructure engineering major at George Mason University and talks about how excited he is to return to school. He explains his sport of playboating as if anyone could do it. And anyone might be able to, but not quite like him.
Playboating is the extreme sports enthusiast's take on the already extreme sport of whitewater kayaking. In playboating, formerly called rodeo, paddlers positions themselves in a single area, usually a hole or a wave, and perform tricks — similar to those of skate- or snowboarders. Competitions are judged and evaluated based on the difficulty of the tricks performed, the technical ability in performing the tricks, the flow of the round, and more.
After making it to his first classes as a Patriot this fall, Poffenberger missed two weeks of school to go to the World Championships and capped off a dominating season. In 2012, he placed second in the closed deck canoe and open canoe classes at the World Cup events, then came back and won both categories at the Green River race, an international steep creek race held in North Carolina. This year he qualified for his third consecutive U.S, Freestyle team, and was nominated for the Male Paddler of the Year award for the 2013 Canoe and Kayak Awards. And while he was at it, he reset the current world record — which he already held — for highest waterfalls run in a closed-deck canoe by going over the 82-foot tall Metlako Falls.
Poffenberger was born in Fairfax and says he has been paddling since he was five. His first major competition was the 2007 National Freestyle Championships. He placed second. He was 12 at the time.
"I was lucky, though. There was a lull in the sport," he chuckles.
The man who beat him, Seth Chapelle, an idol of Poffenberger's, is now his teammate on the U.S. national team. Placing second at the 2007 contest gave him the confidence that he could be one of the best. It showed him an obvious path to reward if he was willing to dedicate himself to the sport.
Poffenberger credits where he grew up as a major influence on his paddling. "Most people don't realize that one of the biggest — maybe the biggest — whitewater communities is on the Potomac River." He explains that because of its shape and channeling, particularly around the Great Falls area, the Potomac provides a challenging environment that allowed him to do more than just creeking or slalom.
While location had a lot to do with his initial interest in the sport, he's very certain about how he decided to pursue paddling. "There was this video," he says. "National Geographic's 'The Iceland River Challenge' it was called." He describes its final scene in detail, the descent of 12 men from a glacial river source to its mouth, with a sense of awe and admiration.
Poffenberger knows the risk of dedicating himself to school. Whereas college football and basketball serve as the minor leagues to the NFL and NBA and many other student-athletes are given the opportunity to hone their abilities with the permissive environment of NCAA sports, Poffenberger is without a proverbial paddle there. He loses some of his normal practice time and the ability to travel for competitions because of school, but he seems OK with the trade-off.
"It's cool to be in school," he says. "It's about my future."
His future is why Poffenberger plans to study engineering. Liquid Logic Kayaks, his main sponsor, often solicits his input on how to make their boats better. And Poffenberger worked as an intern with McLaughlin Whitewater Design, a firm that specializes in designing paddling courses, last year and maintains a consultant position with them.
While he hasn't gotten much into the engineering part of his engineering degree yet, with general requirements and introductory courses to take care of first, Poffenberger is excited about his academic future. "I think I'll have a little advantage," he says about getting into the nitty-gritty of design and engineering, referencing his work with McLaughlin and Liquid Logic.
Poffenberger has a schedule that allows him some time in the water, though not as much as he'd like.
George Mason currently does not feature a kayaking club or any male rowing programs, though the Physical Activity for Lifetime Wellness program offers a kayaking course available to students, faculty and staff. That course, though, might be a little below the world champ's speed. Instead, Poffenberger says he may try to start a kayaking club after he gets a bit more settled in at Mason. "We have an amazing resource, and it's only 15 minutes away," Poffenberger says, again referring to his home waters of the Potomac.
He knows the risk of what he does — broken backs are a leading injury for kayakers crazy enough to take their boats over waterfalls — and knows that in the water, at the lip looking over a seven- or eight-story drop, each little move counts. "If you paddle and put your hand out, just a bit as you go over, the slightest movements in a paddler's body can drastically change your boat's angle as you fall." The implication of what that means for the kayaker is obvious, and ominous.
Safety is sort of a funny thing to discuss with Poffenberger, though. When asked about his favorite trick, he thinks about it for a minute. "The Jedi Flip," he says. He explains that it involves pushing the nose of the boat into the water and using the water's natural force to pop out and rotate so as to land on the stern, which will again propel the boat out of the water; while in the air for the second time, the rider does a backflip.
"I don't land it that often," he says. "But it's fun to try."
Poffenberger is all about innovation now, when he has time. "I'm trying to push the sport," he says. And while he's doing that, he'll have Mason to push his academics. Making it all come together will be like riding down a waterfall though, because in both, as Poffenberger says, "it's all about a combination of factors."
A version of this storiy appeared on Mason's Newsdesk November 20, 2013.
Write to Catherine Probst at firstname.lastname@example.org